By Don Zimmer-
(CBS) To begin here I am going to commit baseball sacrilege. I disagree with Vin Scully.
During Wednesday night’s game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox, those who pulled up a chair with Scully heard him reminisce about Don Zimmer, who passed away earlier that day at the age of 83. The little salute and farewell was typical classic Scully and 99 percent perfect.
Except the part where he said that Zimmer was “of the Dodgers — and so many other teams — but he’ll forever be a Dodger.” With all due respect, Mr. Scully, Zim will forever be all of us baseball folk, especially those who consider ourselves the outsiders, the little guys, the C+ students, the irregularly average and the ones just happy to have a place at the table of baseball or whatever slice of life you care to choose.
No game is as attached, if not reliant, on its peccadillos and folkloric minor characters, and Zimmer very much was the adhesive of a character needed to hold up the plaques of the heroes. And when we lose one of those guys, usually a ripple of “Aww, too bad” scatters across the baseball pond, we tip our collective caps and it’s back to present day business.
But the lament of loss and celebration of life of Don Zimmer has been bigger than his lovable bald skull. And that’s really heartwarming because we should never lose appreciation of the goofballs, the caricatures, the antiheroes and the regular guys.
And that’s what made Zim so endearing. He was your buddy from back in the day with a bunch of affectionate nicknames —“ Tippy,” “Miami Beach,” “Zip,” “The Gerbil,” and “Popeye” — all of which had a different backstory, all of which were completely appropriate at any given time. And he just so happened to make it to the Big Show.
He looked nothing of the part of ballplayer, though. Even when he had some hair and not so much of a pronounced belly, he looked like somebody aged by a few decades a frustrated toddler dressed up for Halloween.
His career slash line is an enviable .235/.290/.372. What any of us wouldn’t give to be able to do that for 12 years on major league grass and dirt.
Two of his most similar player comps are members of the fired Cubs manager club and guys that baseball otherwise chews up and digests and forgets about, Dale Sveum and Jim Lefebvre. As Scully mentioned, a toe injury to Zimmer led to the call-up of future All-Star and MVP Maury Wills. As a Cubs player, he was pushed further into a utility roll by the call-up of Ron Santo. Zimmer was never the star.
But he was never unhappy to be here.
I have a theory that no photograph exists of Zim that is not thoroughly engaging to the viewer, regardless of how it captured the subject. A smile that exploded through massive cheeks. Drowning in champagne. But also profound sadness after the dishonor he felt he caused the game with his altercation with Pedro Martinez. Juxtaposed with a polar opposite. Ready for battle.
None of which for me holds a candle to one of my favorite photographs ever taken. In the picture-as-thousand-words department, I know of no other that represents the existentialism of Cubdom. There’s Zimmer, contemplating, regretting, woulda/coulda/shoulda-ing, frustrated, perhaps considering punching or crying or just walking away (in supposedly his favorite year), surrounded by rust and worn wood and decaying paint. And next to an unsympathetic sportswriter in Jerome Holtzman, enjoying his cigar and botheringly and necessarily there to paint the picture of us when we just want the world to go away for just one friggin’ minute. That photo is all of us.
This video is, too. Zim as third-base coach, the oft second banana but vehemently defending his ball club to the awful umps in the second inning of a game, causing a delay of epic proportions that leads to him then defending those same umps from the wrath of a charging opponent hell-bent on something really bad happening. All of it soundtracked by Harry Caray and Steve Stone, who both go from politely squabbling over the bad call (Stone, of course, was right) to Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler roles.
Zim was allowed to dog cuss the umps for 15 minutes, but he’d be damned if you were going to get physical with those jerks.
Zimmer was the little guy hero. Unattractive and unrefined. The Tribune Co. was never a big fan of his, and he knew it. And instead of cowering before them, the guy demanded he be respected contractually like one of their precious players.
“Am I any different?” Zimmer said of his desire for a contract extension and some security in 1991. “What am I? A piece of garbage in Lake Michigan?”
The suits told him to get lost, and he invited the media to empty out his New York hotel room minibar so that it could be charged to the team. Hero.
He was simple, uncomplicated. He married his wife at home plate between games of a minor league doubleheader in 1951, for Pete’s sake. All he wanted was a fair shake and nothing more.
“I don’t want no day,” he told Esquire in 2001 regarding any special honors. “Hey, it’s been a great ride for me, a great life. Everything I have I owe to baseball. Baseball owes me nothin’. Ain’t nobody has to give me nothin’. I would be embarrassed if I had a day somewhere. I don’t want no day. I want friends, to live my life the way I wanna live it.”
Tell me that isn’t every single one of us.
Scully told a story of Cubs manager Zimmer sending him a note on a ball reading, “If a fight breaks out, I want you.” We should all want a Don Zimmer in a fight. Because Zim’s baseball life was a fight for us unspecial people. He would disagree with an ump, an owner, a Vin Scully if need be. And then he’d smile.
He isn’t forever a Dodger. Or a Red Sox, Ray, Yankee or Cub.
He’s forever all of us.
You can follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe.